NABLUS, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — "Everybody rise!" the translator/bailiff called as Lt. Col. Yehoshua Levi entered the courtroom Sunday and swept a big, gray alley cat from the seat of his judge's chair.
The animal leaped over the bench and scrambled for cover in the forest of young Palestinian legs dangling from the defendants' pews on one side of the dim, unheated room.
And for the next few minutes, as Levi postponed the first case because the defendant was missing, prisoners and their Israeli army guards alike "shooed" loudly to scare the cat away.
Wheels of Justice
That was the unusual scene as the wheels of military justice began turning here for some of the first youths to go on trial for their part in the recent wave of unrest that has been called 1952998688Bank and Gaza Strip since Israeli troops occupied the territories after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Senior Israeli military sources said Sunday that more than 900 Palestinian males, mostly aged 17 to 27, are now in detention awaiting trial as a result of that unrest. The majority were arrested in an extraordinary security sweep last week that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said was meant to remove the organizers of disturbances.
"If these are the leaders, we can survive," an Israeli journalist commented wryly as he watched the gathering of seemingly sheepish young Arab prisoners here Sunday.
The Israeli army sources said that three temporary military courts will open in other parts of the West Bank today to supplement the central one here in Nablus and ensure expedited handling of the flood of new cases.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, a group of Israeli and Arab attorneys who regularly defend Palestinian prisoners said that, depending on how the West Bank trials proceed, they may join the action of their colleagues in Gaza, who are boycotting what they describe as assembly line justice in connection with latest unrest.
"We will not become the wholesalers of files," said attorney Leah Tsemel, an Israeli, at a press conference. "This is what the system is trying to get us to do."
Judging by the confused scene at army headquarters here in Nablus on Sunday, the system is taxed to the limit by the wave of arrests.
Lawyers, Clients Never Met
Defense attorneys sought out clients in the courtroom whom they had never before met, and others asked to be relieved of their duties because the prisoners and their families disagreed on their appointments.
Cases were less-than-adequately prepared by both prosecution and defense, and in one instance, there was brief confusion over the identity of a young man in the dock. Pleas were entered without any charges being read.
There was a constant stream of lawyers and clerks in and out of the courtroom, as they tried to sort out multicolored case files: powder blue folders for Judge Levi, light green for the army prosecutor, beige for the defense attorneys.
After more than 2 1/2 hours, Levi had sentenced three youths to a total of 11 months in jail for throwing stones. All had pleaded guilty.
19 Cases Postponed
Nineteen other cases, involving a total of 34 more defendants, were postponed for one to three days, mostly to give defense attorneys more time to familiarize themselves with the details.
Israel radio reported that the Gaza military court sentenced 13 of 23 alleged demonstrators there Sunday to terms of up to three months in jail. Ten more cases were postponed.
The Israeli authorities allowed print journalists to observe the Nablus trials Sunday, but photographers, television reporters and family members were generally not allowed inside. Several dozen relatives of defendants stood in a cold drizzle outside the regional army headquarters, apparently waiting for word of the proceedings. Still and TV cameras were admitted to the small courtroom for only a few minutes to film half a dozen prisoners who were escorted back to their seats from a brief recess.
A young woman soldier acting as a court clerk chewed bubble gum distractedly during the proceedings, while an Israeli Arab acted as bailiff and translator.
Judge, Defendant Dressed Alike
Levi wore a hooded, olive green army parka in the chilly courtroom, at one point facing a Palestinian defendant attired in the same army-issue jacket. The only difference was that Levi's parka bore the insignia of his rank.
The officer postponed the first 17 cases in a row. When defendant Ziyad Arafa said that he needed a lawyer, Levi motioned toward the defense table and commented, "So--you have a bunch of them right here." The case was postponed until Thursday.
In cases where the defendant was nearing the 18-day limit for the time a prisoner can be held without trial in the territories, the judge extended his remand.